He is a champion. The very second Hyuuga Neji sees an opponent, they are, deep down, already beaten.
It never takes much. A glance, a taken a stance, a monosyllabic sentence, and they are gone. They are dust at his feet, they are craters in the ground…they are finished. And they always remember that it was he who beat them. Whether it is the flash of his moon-white eyes or the pound of his Gentle Fist, there is something inside of Neji that commands respect, despite his lower familial rank.
The difference lies with Tenten. She gives him the respect, the loyalty, even the strength – and she gives it first. Neji knows, after so many years, that Tenten would be willing to give him her very life; if only he ever asked her to.
But he never asks. It takes effort to get him to speak to her outright, and she knows that her teammate hates to ask her for anything. Tenten usually offers first – do you want a drink, Neji? – before he either nods or shakes his head. And he never says thank you, but she hears it anyway.
She hears a lot of things. But Tenten is always left wondering if he ever hears anything from her as well.
"The Byakugan failed to find anything wrong with his insides," Neji was telling her as Lee slept with loud snores in the light of the hurriedly-made campfire. "There was no poison in the shuriken, but the cut is pretty deep. Even so, he won't have any trouble with it so long as we apply ointment and fresh bandages every day." He gave her a sideways look, and Tenten deliberately kept her eyes on Lee's injured left side. "You did well in taking care of it."
She waved the compliment, rare as it was, away and stood up from her crouching position to throw the used bandages, soiled with Rock Lee's blood, into the fire. "Sakura gave me a few tips before we left. Lee was rather reckless today," she said, changing the subject as though she feared Neji would contradict her, even though she knew how low the chance of that happening was.
"Hm." Leaving the green-clad boy to a snoring-full rest, Neji walked over to the fire and began preparing tea and rice for their dinner while she sanitized the camp. "I think this is the first time he's been hit with such a simple attack since we were Genin." He paused, seeming to think back on the days he had treated Lee as such an incredibly inferior shinobi.
He regretted those words, Tenten knew, although Neji had never apologized for them verbally. Lee was a terrific force to be reckoned with in the present, but he was also as kind as he had ever been and had long ago accepted Neji's withdrawn statements.
But what could have gotten into their extroverted teammate today? Tenten sat down on a flat-topped rock and rested her chin on her hands. Lee had been fighting a Mist-nin that should have been an easily-defeated opponent. His taijutsu had been perfect, but he had angled his head just the wrong way, and supposedly the sun had gotten in his eyes, distracting him mid-elbow drop, leaving his side exposed to a hastily-thrown shuriken by the Mist-nin. Fortunately,Lee had still managed to knock him out a second later with a blow to the head.
Tenten sighed. "I wonder if we should start carrying a vial of sake on us as a precaution." Smiling mischievously, she added, "It would only take a drop…"
"He would be a danger to himself and others."
The seriously-spoken words had Tenten's shoulders slumping. "Jeez, Neji, I was only kidding."
The Hyuuga didn't respond but finished his quick cooking job and passed her a bamboo casing full of rice. "Itkadakimasu," Tenten mumbled dejectedly.
The two of them ate together in silence for several minutes, the sounds of the forest at night and Lee's inelegant snoring accompanying them. As Tenten sipped the last of her steaming tea, she tried to discreetly watch Neji, who sat across from her on the other side of the fire. The large flames that sprang and leapt between them kept her from seeing him clearly, but she could at least see his pearly eyes as he looked up at the starry sky over their heads.
It was their skill, Tenten recalled, for which the Hokage had assigned them this mission; not their personalities. Team Gai was known for their extraordinarily good teamwork, although perhaps not as well known for it as InoShikaCho (this was most likely due to the odd persona clash between Lee and Neji). This was the reason they had been sent by Tsunade to travel to a mountainous region in the Fire Country to stock up on supplies of a certain root that Konoha's medical unit often used in healing cut muscles, something that happened almost every mission to Konoha ninja. Lee would even need some upon their return.
All at once, Tenten suddenly felt restless, and she stood up. Grabbing her small pack, she slung it over her shoulder and began to walk out of the light provided by the fire. "I'm going to train," she told the boy that still remained conscious.
Her voice had sounded strange even to her, and Neji had obviously detected some kind of unrest in her tone, because his reply held a note of surprise. "Right now?"
"Yes." Was it so hard for him to fathom that even she had days when working more seemed like a good thing? It was true that Tenten rarely overdid it quite the way the Hyuuga tended to, but still, it was irritating for him to be stunned at the idea of her trying as hard as he did. So irritating, in fact, that politeness dropped from her speech as she was leaving. "I'll be back in an hour. Watch Lee."
Her slim figure disappeared into the shadows that the trees provided, and Neji was left to ponder her unexpected change of mood. She didn't look back to see the way his eyes narrowed.
Tenten pondered it herself. She stood in a round clearing, larger than the one where Team Gai had made their camp for the night. Despite the many dozens of trees that surrounded her, she had picked out five targets among them all; one had an odd, cylindrical knot in its bark, another had a crooked, thin branch with only one leaf hanging off the tip, etc.
Evening her body weight with a widespread stance, Tenten let her chocolate-colored eyes drift shut and slowly reached inside her pack to fish out a handful of kunai. She took steady breaths and in a moment she had jumped ten feet into the air and, spinning, chucked the sharp blades at her desired targets, using chakra to better her aim.
When she landed on bent knee, she raised her head to see that each tree she had chosen – specifically the points she had used to remember them by – now had two kunai embedded in their bark. Tenten smiled.
Even Hyuuga Neji did not have the precise aim that she possessed. Every time that they trained together, she was able to prevent the majority of his Hakke attacks with some well-timed shuriken and intricate movements that Neji could never match. She had beat him on several occasions, and her jutsu was most likely the one way she would ever have won any amount of respect from him.
She retrieved her kunai and went on to repeat her target practice several times before her restlessness had gone and she began to feel that sleep would soon be needed. Her hour was nearly up, but she held off on gathering her weapons and returning. Instead, she simply lay down in the center of the clearing, tall grass rising around her, and stared at the night sky.
It had been a very long time since she had put her life on hold to appreciate the world around her. There was always so much to do, so many expectations to live up to, so much to fight for. But this was her life, this way of the kunoichi. She had chosen to walk the path of danger for the protection of others, and she did not regret it, although there were times when she wondered about who she would be if fate had called her for a different purpose.
A tiny smirk tugged a corner of her mouth up, and Tenten shook her head to herself. Fate was a word that belonged to Hyuuga Neji…but maybe Neji the Genin. As a Jounin, Tenten had heard Neji speak of destiny only in a passing way, as though it was a casual thought to him now. But she knew that it wasn't. Even now, he was most likely thinking of how he would change his destiny within the Hyuuga clan.
She had just sat up to go back to the camp when she heard a rush of air whiz by her right ear. Tenten turned to see a four-pronged shuriken freshly stuck in the ground where her head had been a split-second ago. She jumped to her feet and took in her surroundings, her eyes landing on a black clad ninja with his face half-covered. After seeing the symbol on his forehead protector and how the metal of it was dented inward, Tenten surmised that her attacker was not only a Mist-nin but the very one that had stabbed Lee, only to be defeated by him in the same instant.
A laugh bubbled up from her throat before she could help it. "Come for revenge?" she asked. "My teammate's not here right now."
"That's just fine," replied the Mist-nin, his dark eyes glinting in the moonlight. "You'll do just as well."
Tenten thought fast. Her best kunai were still stuck in the trees around her, most of her chakra had been drainedby the day and her training, her body was spent, and the pack that contained the rest of her weapons was currently too far away for her to reach even with a well-executed leap. And three more auras had just entered her sensory.
A bitter smile crossed her lips. "I'm definitely at a disadvantage," she said, more to herself than to the enemies that surrounded her. "Well…we'll see."
She managed to jump to the kunai-bearing tree that she was nearest to and ripped out the two blades just as another Mist-nin headed for her. She ducked to the ground and rolled to him, kicking his legs out from beneath him. As that one fell, she turned to face another oncoming shinobi, and within a moment both of the kunai were dug into his sides. "There's for Lee," she murmured as he went down with a groan.
The clearing was too wide for her to jump across it from one of the trees, and Tenten was still one kunoichi against three shinobi (the first one she had fought was on his feet again). All she could do was advance and hope that her punches did something effective, but Tenten knew that she was practically nothing without even a scroll to help her.
She managed to get her fist into one of the Mist-nin's cheek, and he went sprawling back a few feet, but she was soon forced backward as she dodged a barrage of kicks from one of the others. She thought she might be nearing a tree enough to make an escape into the branches, but just as she gained her footing for a jump, Tenten felt a searing pain strike into her lower back. Eyes widening, her mouth opened in a silent scream, and she jerked around to see the shinobi whose sides she had stabbed lying behind her, propped up on one hand. He had actually taken one of her own kunai from his very side and had thrust it into her.
White spots burst in front of her eyes, and she went down to her knees. The pain was horrible; a few bunches of nerves had been impaled, and she briefly wondered if this is what Neji would feel if his cursed seal was activated.
She bit her lip, swallowing hard as the white spots faded to black ones. Neji.
As consciousness fled her, Tenten thought she might have heard the Hidden Mist ninjas cry out; or perhaps that was just her own inner voice pleading for either an impossible victory or a swift death.
After all, dying didn't count as surrendering. Death was only an inevitable surrender no matter what battle you were in.
Brown eyes opened to see two moons. It took a few seconds, but when Tenten's vision focused at last, she realized she was really looking at the colorless eyes of Hyuuga Neji.
"You beat them," she said, eyelashes fluttering in exhaustion. There was no need to question the matter.
Neji nodded slowly. He looked grim."Can you sit up?"
She answered with a slight smile, and he helped her into a sitting position. Tenten winced and clenched her teeth but didn't groan even though the pain was immense. She looked around to see four motionless bodies around her. "You didn't—"
"No. I simply used a gas on them. They won't wake up for two days and by then we'll have gotten the roots and will be three-fourths of the way back to Konoha." He purposely left out the part about the sharp Gentle Fist he had given to the one that had bragged about stabbing her in the back.
Shaking her head, Tenten slid a foot back to attempt standing up, but Neji stopped that idea with a firm hand on her shoulder. "I can walk, Neji," she said, annoyance thinly coating her words.
"I'd rather you didn't jar your back until we're back at camp and I can look at the wound. Your spine may have been hit." Before she could protest further, Neji had slid one strong arm under her shoulders and the other behind her knees. She was in his arms before she had the chance to be surprised, but Neji used a rare gentleness that Tenten was not accustomed to seeing from him.
A faint tint of pink bloomed on her cheeks, and Tenten kept her face downward in hopes that he wouldn't notice. As he walked, he kept her eyes on the trees, her pack slung over his shoulder, anything but his eyes.
The sound of her name actually being spoken by him forced her gaze up to his as though it had been yanked by an invisible string.
Neji's eyes met hers for half of a second, and her heart thudded, but she couldn't understand why. She was hit with the idea that he might be about to say something she would not know how to react to; before anything could come out of his mouth, she said, "How did you know what was happening to me?"
If he was caught off-guard by that question, the Hyuuga did nothing to show it. "I heard you," he told her, his voice softening as the night grew around them. He stopped walking and stood still as brown met white. They were impeccably close, with her right up againsthis chest and her head no more than an inch or so below his chin. Tenten wondered if she was the only one affected by the proximity. "Somehow," murmured her Jounin friend, the man she had always considered her partner. "I heard you."
After a moment, a smile curved her lips and she carefully rested her head against his shoulder. Neji began walking again, even more slowly now. Tenten bravely lifted a hand up his back to lightly brush her fingers through his long, dark hair.Neji didn't mind.
It seemed, Tenten thought as the campsite came within sight, and an overly concerned Lee greeted them with shouts of concern that were too loud, that she had been wrong.
Perhaps for them, there was more than one kind of inevitable surrender.